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Sydney, New South Wales, Australia born 1935

  • England 1957-59
  • Italy, France 1959-60

The origin of the Milky Way

1964 Place made: Melbourne, Victoria, Australia
Materials & Technique: paintings, oil on canvas
Dimensions: 165.2 h x 196.6 w cm framed (overall) 1758 h x 2060 w x 60 d mm
Acknowledgement: Gift of Ann Lewis AO 2011
Accession No: NGA 2011.1278
Image rights: © Janet Dawson. Licensed by Viscopy

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The two paintings by Janet Dawson recently bequeathed from the estate of Ann Lewis AO to the National Gallery are iconic works in the artist’s development and in the history of Australian art. The origin of the Milky Way and St George and the dragon, both painted in 1964, encompass a feeling of the upbeat tempo of the 1960s and are the fruition of years of Dawson’s dedication to looking at and making art. They also feel very relevant in the present—so fresh that they could have been painted yesterday.

Dawson has revealed herself over time to be an artist of considerable versatility. Already in 1955, when she was only 20 years old, her diverse abilities were recognised with awards for both portraiture and abstract painting. The following year, she received a National Gallery of Victoria Travelling Scholarship. After her training at the National Gallery School in Melbourne, she was taken by much of the art she saw in Europe and in Britain, where she studied for a time at the Slade School of Fine Art.

Dawson was interested in studying works of the past in collections such as the National Gallery in London, where she saw Jacopo Tintoretto’s The origin of the Milky Way c 1575 and Paolo Uccello’s Saint George and the dragon c 1470, which informed her works of the same titles. In Tintoretto’s mythological painting, figures circle around and dive towards the focal point of Juno, her breast milk spurting out to create the stars of the Milky Way. While overt narrative elements have disappeared from or are submerged in Dawson’s work, she combines a feeling for milky sensuality with dynamic compositional structure and vibrant colour. Similarly, in St George and the dragon, elements such as the red cross refer directly to the saint of the title, even though the subject is largely abstracted. In both instances, the bold shapes radiate around the small, crucial inner circle, with emphatic and delicate forms and brush-marks interweaving.

Dawson’s dramatic paintings combine early sources with her understanding of contemporary art at the time, in part inspired by the exhibition The new American painting, which she saw at the Tate in London in 1959. In that same year, debates were raging back in Melbourne about abstraction and figuration in the form of The Antipodean manifesto instigated by art historian Bernard Smith, who encouraged a local ethos and a concentration on imagery. Dawson provided a sophisticated alternative, combining past and present references with integrity of purpose. By the time she painted The origin of the Milky Way and Saint George and the dragon, she had evolved an approach that was informed by Colourfield and Hard Edge painting and was driven by a distinctive personal vitality and directness. Like the still-youthful yet skilled Saint George slaying the dragon, she was well and truly a match for her peers, and these confident works made their impact felt.

These two major paintings were left to the National Gallery of Australia by Ann Lewis AO, who knew of our interest in them. The bequest is doubly fitting as Lewis was on the Gallery’s Council for a time and had been one of the Directors of Gallery A in Sydney, where both works were first exhibited in 1964. The Gallery is indebted to her memory and to her family for making these inspiring works available to the collection for our many national and international visitors to enjoy.

Deborah HartSenior Curator,
Australian Painting and Sculpture post-1920

in artonview, issue 69, autumn 2012